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The sceptical polymath

Leída en The philosophers´magazine una entrevista a Ziauddin Sardar.

Algunos párrafos que destacamos:

““Since I wanted consciously to promote Islamic thought, right from the beginning, I was very dissatisfied with a great deal of what I read about Islam, since the Koran constantly asks the reader to be a thinker. The most common phrases in the Koran are ‘have you not thought’, ‘did you not think’, ‘look at the signs of nature’; and the interesting thing for me is that the Koran itself, although it’s a clearly a religious text, continuously asks questions. This is what Ibn Rushd and the philosophers in Islam were actually doing – asking questions. So asking questions became my methodology, in a sense.”

In his own case, he finds it “difficult to separate” his pursuit of philosophy and his investigations of Islam. “I am not a conventional Muslim thinker. I’m not too interested in theology. Let me be totally honest: theology bores me. I’m not interested in how many angels there are and what are their names and exactly when to bow and not to bow and whether to raise your index finger or not during prayer. I’m interested in looking at Islamic concepts, if you like, from a philosophical perspective.

“If you take for instance the concept of halal, which basically means praiseworthy – something is good and wholesome, for you, for society, for the world. This is a central concept in Islam – Islam is built on the notion of halal. But nowadays it seems to have been reduced to meat. There could not have been a greater injustice than to reduce such a profound notion as halal to simply halal meat. And to me this is a philosophical question, in the sense of: how do we live a halal life in contemporary times?”

It’s a question that Sardar believes has several dimensions. One is ethical. “If you are slaughtering an animal, first of all you need to treat that animal as an individual creation of God. So you look the animal in the eye and say ‘I am doing this in the name of God because I am hungry.’ So you can’t apply the same principle to mass slaughter in the abattoir. Factory farming can never be halal in my notion of thought. It’s just not ethical. For me one of the most halal things you can do is switch the light off, because climate change is real. I want to open up the notion up of halal from an ethical perspective.”

Then there is an epistemological dimension: “My pursuit of knowledge as well as the knowledge I generate has to be praiseworthy and healthy. So the way I seek knowledge, the experimental methods I use, has to show reverence for the creation of God. I cannot destroy the object of my study simply because I want to study it.”

Sardar’s approach to Islamic thought can sound – deceptively – almost secular.

“I don’t see Islam as a religion. As I have said, I’m not particularly interested in theology. I’m interested in Islam as a world-view, and as a world-view it is based on certain ethical concepts, so I’m committed to a particular ethical way of looking at and shaping the world, at the end of the day. My Islam is about epistemology, it’s about ethical interpretation of concepts, it’s about engaging and changing the world for the better. It’s also about prayer and fasting, but that’s only a minor component of the way I see Islam as a world-view.”


“I think your education has been an unjust education. An education that says to you philosophy started with the Greeks – Plato and Aristotle and all that in Athens – and then suddenly the enlightenment happens, is telling you is that there is a dark ages when nothing happened, which is a gross distortion of history. This is where Al-Ghazali Book of Knowledge comes in very handy, because he would argue that the knowledge that has been passed to you is not true knowledge in the sense that it has a lot of distortion of history in it.

“Basically what you’ve missed is from 8th century to 17th century, so you’ve missed a thousand years of philosophy, which is a hell of a lot of philosophy. You also missed how Europe acquired all that. So in a sense you’ve been unjust to yourself because what makes Julian the self is truncated – you have no awareness of the rich Islamic heritage that shaped yourself.”

There are also specific ideas in Islamic philosophy which he thinks could and should have had more impact on western philosophy. For instance, “in the western tradition of thought, especially post-enlightenment, reason and values have been two watertight compartments. Science is supposed to be neutral, international, it has no emotions or values in it. When you study Islamic philosophy you realise that there is no such thing as neutral science. We would not have to wait until the twenty-first century to discover that science is socially constructed because Al Ghazali knew that knowledge was socially constructed.”

There doesn’t seem to be too much sign of philosophy departments in British and American universities taking Sardar’s advice and broadening their curricula. Perhaps the bigger problem they have, however, is precisely in the fact that they are philosophy departments.

“I do not believe in disciplinary boundaries, that this bit is physics and this bit is chemistry, because I don’t think nature behaves like that. So I don’t think this is philosophy and this is not philosophy. For me you pursue a question and you need to do whatever you need to do to answer that question, and if you need to go and learn geology to answer that question then you need to go and learn geology to answer that question.”

Perhaps that is the real incoherence of the philosophers: that they think they can be pure philosophers. If that’s right, then Sardar is better off remaining a polymath, and leaving the philosopher title for others.”

Sobre Ziauddin Sardar. Artículos.